Violinist Thomas Bowes on Bach

Eva Mackevic

Violinist and orchestra leader Thomas Bowes talks to us about the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach and his rousing set of works, Sei Solo


Image by Ben Ealovega


First exposure to Bach

It’s tricky to remember a time in my life when Bach wasn’t actually there. I started playing the violin when I was about seven, although I wasn’t a sort of boy prodigy who was practising all the time. For a while, I was much more interested in playing cricket and running.

But I can remember a moment when I was about ten or 11, and my dad put on a record of one of Bach's pieces for violin and harpsichord. It was early spring, so the daffodils were out, and there had been one of these freak snowstorms, so the poor daffodils were completely weighted down with snow and because that music was playing, I think I just made a connection between this contrast and the music—I remember it till this day.

I think I’ve always in a way been trying to retrieve and revisit that place of wonderment but also pain and suffering that life always delivers, and the fact that Bach’s music seemed to understand all that.

 

On Bach’s music

For me—and I think I’m speaking for lots of my colleagues—Bach’s kind of the greatest. He writes with incredible discipline, every note is important. He’s not trying to create an impression; there’s an exactitude to everything that he writes, and yet everything is so human. When you listen to a good performance of Bach, you feel that you too could write the music if only you had the means. It takes you into realms that are what some people would call "spiritual" or other people might call "religious".

It’s exact but infinite at the same time and I just find that totally miraculous and endlessly fascinating. When I play these unaccompanied works for violin I am… I know it sounds like a cliché thing to say “Oh it’s revealing something new every time”, but I tell you it really does. I play these pieces and I find myself being moved by them. Today I played the opening chord of the G minor sonata which sets the whole thing off and it’s like something colossal; it’s like a huge door swinging open to a kind of universe of feelings, humanity and spirituality and suffering and exultation. It’s everything, it’s all there.

 

Not the most easy-going guy

As a personality, I find Bach very attractive and interesting. He had a great sense of self-improvement. He basically taught himself but, interestingly—like many people who teach themselves and become absolute masters at what they do—he became a little intolerant of others, whose efforts he found less good. I think Bach’s life story, if you look at the number of career disappointments he had, tells you that he wasn’t that easy of a person to employ. For instance, he spent the last 27 years of his life in Leipzig, and had a sort of bickering relationship with the church authorities and the town council. We’d like to think that had we been in the position of hiring him we would of course understand that he was one of the world’s great composers and was to be given free reign and looked after.

"Bach was someone who routinely over-delivered"

But they didn’t see it like that, what they got was someone who routinely over-delivered. They'd ask for religious music, which was part of his duty, but instead he'd produce work after work such as the Mass in B minor or the St Matthew Passion which are not just fine works, they’re works that have survived centuries to be absolutely up there, the peak of civilisation. But did they get it? No, they were just a bit annoyed that it was very long or that it was for the wrong instruments. You want to think, I’d have understood it, I’d have been there to help him but I have to say he probably wasn’t that easy a guy to be around.

 

Sei Solo

The year is 1720, Bach is 35 and he’s got three children. He’s married to a lady who remains very mysterious, Maria Barbara, but it looks like they were a very happily married couple. And, Bach has got this appointment in this little principality of Anhalt-Köthen, central Germany. So, for once he’s employed by somebody who understands him. They are really good friends, it’s quite clear from letters that although there would have been some sort of uncomfortable class differentiation, they seem to have really hit it off and I suspect they had long discussions about all the burning topics of the day, from religion to art to philosophy.

The story is that Bach goes on a trip with his employer to play some 60 miles away for a summer visit. The trip is longer than expected so his homecoming is delayed, but on coming back he discovers upon crossing his threshold that while he’s been away, his wife got sick and died and is already buried. It’s only circumstantial, but I’m certain that these pieces are a response to that. If you think about the words Sei Solo, ie, “You are alone”, I think he’s telling us a lot about what the works are about. 

"He manages to create a whole universe out of this one little scratchy box"

There’s a kind of emotional necessity to get these pieces out and there are several very telling things that are really poetic. For instance, the first partita is so beautifully written out. He writes double movements in these single notes that are kind of like ghosts of the music you’ve just heard. It’s like a dialogue between him and his dead wife. There are other things in the set that point to this as well—him coming to terms with a bereavement. I’m sure that this was a part of the process for him. Bach was a devout believer so I think this event challenged his faith. Why had his wife been taken from him and he’s suddenly been left with three children to look after?

The music is remarkable if you think that a solo violin can only play a few tunes, and yet he manages to create a whole universe out of this one little scratchy box. He had a lot of these double ideas using what would have been quite conventional form at the time but of course being Bach, he’s not content to simply regurgitate those forms, he diverts them and twists them and disassembles them and puts them back together in new and interesting ways.

 

Performing the pieces


Image by Ben Ealovega

I think there’s room for infinite variation with these pieces and I’d like to think that every time I do them, they're slightly different and that’s a good thing. I don’t subscribe to the idea that you need to make them interesting. I like delivering them with a full belief in what I’m doing and letting that speak. But, nevertheless, you play that first phrase in the D minor sonata, and the moment you’ve played it, you have to respond to it.

In a way, it’s a bit like you’re playing many parts, especially in a movement like that: where there's a statement and then a response. I suppose in the way that actors would never plan their response before they’ve heard the question asked because the question would be asked in a particular way, and so it would need a response that really matches it or responds in an honest way. I just let myself be guided by what I’ve just heard. 

 

So where should I begin with Bach? 

If you like the violin, Sei Solo is a great starting point. You can also go for one of the keyboard partitas or any of the Brandenburg Concertos. The Magnificat is a great choral piece. There’s so much music out there that it’s worth just sticking your toe in different media, like some of the instrumental music, the keyboard works, the concertos, the choral music and of course, there's a huge number of cantatas if you’re really into vocal music—any one of those usually have something very immediate to latch onto.

 

Thomas Bowes' recording of Sei Solo: JS Bach 6 Sonatas & Partitas for Violin is out now on Navona Records